Jul 3, 2019 | 10:00 GMT

2 mins read

Visual Anthology: The U.S. Drone Fleet

A picture showing U.S. sailors move an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator onto an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.
(Stocktrek Images/Getty Images)
The Big Picture

Unmanned systems have carved out an essential niche in militaries the world over. Once a curious footnote to their manned brethren, remotely piloted vehicles are increasingly ubiquitous on the modern battlefield — and beyond. Although originally intended to function as surveillance platforms, the weaponization of unmanned aerial vehicles/systems (colloquially known as drones) has been ongoing for decades, with many larger systems able to deliver a payload with precision guidance. Drones offer a plethora of advantages, including rapid deployability, extended loiter times, cost-effectiveness and the ability to enter hostile environments without putting people at risk. Having operated drones such as the MQ-1 Predator since the mid-1990s, the United States is a pioneer of modern unmanned systems and has more experience than any other nation when it comes to employing armed and unarmed drones in combat. However, competition is fierce, and military planners and defense manufacturers are already earmarking significant budgets for research and development and acquisition. In this visual anthology, we take a look specifically at the unmanned aerial systems currently in service with the United States.

MQ-1 Predator

An MQ-1B Predator unmanned aircraft system (UAS) flies during training April 16, 2009, at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada.

Developed in the 1990s primarily as a reconnaissance and surveillance platform, the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator has been in service with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and CIA since 1995. As well as carrying an array of electro-optical sensors, the MQ-1 received an upgrade to equip it with a pair of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The MQ-1C Gray Eagle, an updated version of the MQ-1, was introduced in 2009.

(ETHAN MILLER/Getty Images)

RQ-4 Global Hawk

An RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle sits on the flight line.

The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is an unmanned surveillance aircraft capable of surveying as much as 100,000 square kilometers (40,000 square miles) of landscape in a day. The Global Hawk matches high-resolution synthetic aperture radar and long-range electro-optical/infrared sensors with extended loiter times to provide broad coverage and systematic surveillance. Designed by Ryan Aeronautical, now a part of Northrop Gruman, RQ-4s are operated by the Air Force. 

(Stocktrek Images/Getty)

RQ-7B Shadow

A U.S. Marine Corps RQ-7B Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) prepares to land at Speedbag Airfield near Niland, California.

The U.S., Australian and Swedish Armies use the AAI RQ-7 Shadow for surveillance, exploration, battle damage assessments and target acquisition. The RQ-7 is launched from a pneumatic catapult mounted to a trailer and recovered with arresting gear. A digitally stabilized electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera relays video to the ground control station (GCS) in real time through a direct line-of-sight data link.

(PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)

MQ-8 Fire Scout

An MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle takes off during flight operations aboard guided missile frigate USS Simpson on March 6, 2012, in the Gulf of Guinea.

The MQ-8 Fire Scout is a helicopter-based unmanned autonomous system designed by Northrup Grumman. Depending on the mission set, the MQ-8 can be used for reconnaissance and situational awareness, weapons delivery, and precision targeting support. The platform was developed to be interoperable with air, land and sea forces. The MQ-8C Fire Scout is larger than both its cousins, the MQ-8A and the MQ-8B, and is based on the Bell 407 helicopter airframe.

(Wikimedia Commons)

MQ-9 Reaper

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) taxis during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base on November 17, 2015, in Indian Springs, Nevada.

Developed primarily for the U.S. Air Force, the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper can be remotely controlled or flown autonomously. It is larger and more powerful than its predecessor, the MQ-1, and can cruise at three times the speed of the Predator. According to former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Mosely, the Reaper helped to transition UAVs from primarily "intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles" to "to a true hunter-killer role."

(ISAAC BREKKEN/Getty Images)

CQ-10 SnowGoose

Sean McCann, a representative of Mist Mobility Integrated Systems Technology, tells Marines at the UAV flight demonstration site at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., about his company's SnowGoose cargo drone.

The CQ-10 SnowGoose cargo delivery UAV utilizes an autonomous GPS-guided parafoil delivery system to resupply ground forces with near pinpoint accuracy. Its six modular cargo bays can carry up to 270 kilograms (600 pounds) of cargo. 

(JIM GARAMONE/Armed Forces Press Services)

RQ-21 Blackjack

RQ-21A small tactical unmanned air system (STUAS) in flight.

The RQ-21 Blackjack was designed by Boeing Insitu to fulfill the U.S. Navy's need for a small tactical unmanned air system (STUAS). Built to supplement the Boeing Scan Eagle, the twin-boom, single-engine monoplane design uses the same launcher and recovery system. Recently, RQ-21s have provided forward reconnaissance for the U.S. Marine Corps.

(RHITA DANIEL/Wikimedia Commons)

RQ-170 Sentinel

An artist's rendering of the RQ-170 Sentinel in flight.

The Air Force has not released many details about its Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, currently in service with the CIA. However, defense analysts believe the Sentinel fulfills a stealthy reconnaissance role for the USAF. 

(FOX52/Wikimedia Commons)

Black Hornet Nano

Sgt. Scott Weaver poses with a tiny unmanned Black Hornet drone, used by allied forces in Afghanistan, Oct. 15, 2014.

The Black Hornet Nano is a micro unmanned aerial vehicle designed by Norway's Prox Dynamics. The drone fits in the palm of one hand and provides ground troops with local situational awareness. A soldier can be trained to operate the Black Hornet in as little as 20 minutes. The system is currently in service with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, India, Australia, Norway and the Netherlands.

(NIGEL RODDIS/Getty Images)


Student Derek Snyder, a major in the U.S. Marines, works on a prototype quadrotor unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in the Unmanned Systems Laboratory at the Naval Postgraduate School on Sept. 30, 2011, in Monterey, California.

The Boeing Insitu ScanEagle is used for reconnaissance and autonomous surveillance of the battlefield. A smaller, low-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle, the ScanEagle has a flight endurance of 20 hours and a top speed of 80 knots (148 kph/92 mph). The ScanEagle is launched by a pneumatic system dubbed the "SuperWedge" and recovered using the Skyhook system, which uses a hook on the end of the drone's wingtip to catch a rope hanging from a pole.

(TONY AVELAR/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)


An Avenger unmanned aircraft system and inert ordnance sit on display on a tarmac at Palmdale, Calif., Aug. 8, 2012.

The General Atomics Avenger is powered by a turbofan engine, unlike the previous MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. It features internal weapons storage and an S-shaped exhaust to reduce infrared and radar signatures. The Avenger, which made its debut flight in 2009, carries the Lynx synthetic aperture radar and F-35 Lightning II's electro-optical targeting system. A common ground control station, linked to existing communications networks, will be used for the Avenger as well as the MQ-1 and MQ-9.

(PETER D. LAWLOR/Wikimedia Commons)

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